Tag Archives: biography

Minding Marta

Our dog has a torn dewclaw, and the vet told us to dissuade her from licking it for at least four days; to that end, we have, after smearing on the cream that he gave us, wrapped the injured place with bandages and tape. Perhaps that would be sufficient for a well behaved, docile kind of dog, but not for Marta, the canine Houdini. Not only can she have that bandage off in less that three minutes, but she can (drum roll please) ingest it so swiftly and completely that if you have, by chance, decided to take a quick five minute shower, you will find, on re-entering the room where you left her, a total absence of anything resembling said bandage, and a dog vigorously licking her now bare leg. And don’t even get me started on the (beloved by vets) collar of shame; Marta can chew through that and get back to licking and infecting said leg in the blink of an eye. Consequently, the three of us here have been taking turns monitoring Marta, 24 hours a day. She appears to be very happy, as fresh as a daisy and wanting to play, go for walks, chase sticks (and cats), and in all ways behave with doggy abandon and delight; we, on the other hand, are barely functioning.

So this has been a particularly good time to read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, because if any book could make short shrift of my whinging, this is the one. Set in the Lake District, this is far from the romanticized vision that is usually associated with Wordsworth country. Certainly, the world that Rebanks describes is one of extraordinary hard work, impossibly long hours and very little financial reward. However, it is a world that clearly satisfies and enriches the lives of the people who inhabit it, and it has a great deal to teach those of us who restlessly search to find our place, and who are never quite settled where we are. Rebanks’ family have lived and worked in the Lake District for over six hundred years; he is deeply aware of, and grateful for, his connection to the land and to the people with whom he shares it, people who, like him, take their responsibilities seriously and who do so with great integrity. Initially disinterested in school, he came to formal education later than most, though when he did decide to take it on his intelligence and work ethic lead him to read history at Oxford. But right from the start he was clear that, although his degree could afford him the opportunity to work in a variety of arenas, his primary work was and is shepherding; that is what he has returned to, supplementing his livelihood with valuable work at UNESCO.

Rebanks’ story is fascinating, his writing clear, imaginative, and a pleasure to read. The Shepherd’s Life is the perfect antidote for those of us caught in a world where values are too often pliable, and where discomfort is too often mistaken for hardship, and is exactly the right book when you need a dose of perspective: such as at three in the morning, when you’re once again cleaning vomited vet tape off the kitchen floor.

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Magic in Brown Paper

I grew up on a small island in the Salish Sea. In the summers, which were usually dry and warm, I spent much of my time swimming, scrambling over oyster beaches and rocky islets, and washing the salt off in warm, calm lakes. In the winter, I walked or biked the wet roads around the village, played out on our verandah while listening to the pattering rain on our tin roof, and delightedly built indeterminate snow beings after the occasional, deeply welcome, snowfall. The island was peopled by an eclectic assortment of farmers, loggers, fisher folk and eccentrics, with a scattering of opportunists, snobs, artists, and the strangely weird (of course, kids’ assessments of who the really weird ones are frequently differ from their parents’, but that’s another story). For the most part, I found the island and my life there beautiful and complete, except for one thing: there was no library. Not even in our school. Neither of my parents were bookish, and, although my grandmother who lived with us read, her taste tended to the devout rather than the imaginative. When I was very small, she kindly read me stories from the Sunday School papers, which were fine, and I could persuade her on occasion to read out of a very old story book of my father’s, The Foxglove Story Book; one of its stories was about a fairy, which I would beg her to read again and again. I had an aunt in England who sent me British annuals every year at Christmas, and another who gave me a Nancy Drew every birthday. That was it. That and the backs of cereal boxes, a set of thirty year old Books of Knowledge, and purloined copies of my dad’s Star Weekly magazine. Until I discovered The Open Shelf.

Set up, I assume, by the Greater Victoria Public Library on Vancouver Island, the Open Shelf was a kind of outreach library: as soon as I found out about it, I joined. I received a catalogue of book titles, with very short, cryptic descriptions of the books; I would study it for hours, luxuriously agonizing over my choices, and then I would choose titles, up to six books at a time I believe, and mail in my request. A week or so later, the parcel of books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, would arrive at our local post office, and I would find it waiting for me when I went to collect our mail. Those days were like Christmas Day and birthdays all in one. As soon as I got home I’d open my treasure and begin, hiding away under our stairway, or even under the kitchen table, immersing myself in all that glory.

Of course, not every book was an enchantment, but although a passionate reader, I wasn’t a particularly fastidious one (hence the cereal box reading), so I would plough on through both the good and the bad choices that I’d made. But every once in a while, the extraordinary would happen. A particular book would come my way that aligned itself to the deepest part of me; nothing felt more like real magic than that. One such book, however, entered my world through wonderful, ordinary human magic: it arrived from someone I never met, and whose name I do not know, someone who really paid attention to a young reader. One week, when I opened up my book parcel, I found a note from the librarian in charge of my account. One of the books that I had chosen was not available. However, she had taken the liberty of choosing another book for me, one that she liked very much. Because I lived by the water, and through consideration of my past book choices, she thought that I might enjoy it. Enjoy was an understatement. I breathed that book in till it felt like part of me. Fog Magic, by Julia Sauer, a 1943 Newbury Honor book, is about eleven year old Greta, who lives in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, where foggy days are considered a serious nuisance and a threat. Greta, however, is drawn to the mist, and one day she discovers why; it allows her entrance to Blue Cove, an old village which appears abandoned in sunlight, but which is magically transformed in the fog. This is the first book that I can remember that suggested that the imagined and the real are profoundly connected, that the natural world and the magical one are inextricably bound, and that they are transformed each by the other. It changed my life.

I’ve never thanked the lovely, thoughtful person who sent that book my way so many years ago; I wish I could. But whenever I talk to a child, especially about books, I try to keep in mind what was given to me when I received that note: respect, attention, consideration, and an encouraging generosity, from one reader to another.

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Welcome! Why not stay for a spell?

Hello and welcome to the brand-new home of the book witches! Those of you familiar with our talks and work as booksellers on the beautiful rain-soaked coast of western Canada will be well-aware of our enthusiasm and passion for language and literature. We believe that there is a book out there for everyone–an extraordinary story that will change your life forever–and we want to help you find it. We also love to talk about the books that have changed our lives, or made us think, or just provided us with a great deal of pleasure and entertainment, and we love to explore the myriad ideas and opportunities afforded us through the medium of the written word (or illustrated page). We’re just getting started here, so watch closely over the coming days and weeks, as the magic gets underway…


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